The presents have been opened, the wrapping paper has been recycled and the new year has arrived. Now it's time to get down to business on the basketball court.
Roughly six weeks into the high school season, now comes the time when league races begin to take shape and teams begin to build their identities with an eye on the postseason.
There already have been a few surprises, and it will be interesting to see how these play out come tournament time. On Friday, Jan. 4, some of these surprise teams may face their biggest tests to date.
One of the biggest surprises has to be the Westland boys team, which won six of its first seven games and is looking for its first winning season in eight years.
The Cougars proved their mettle by defeating previously unbeaten Olentangy Liberty 70-62 on Dec. 21.
Through seven games, Westland had four seniors scoring in double figures -- guard Kersey Long (15.7 points per game), guard/forward J.J. Smith (13.7) forward Devan Williamson (11.9) and point guard KyJuan Grace (10.4).
Westland still has a bit of growing to do, namely learning how to stay focused and win over the long haul. Its lone setback was to Thomas Worthington 64-53 on Dec. 14.
The Cougars' focus will be tested when they travel to Dublin Coffman on Friday, Jan. 4, for an OCC-Central Division game. The Shamrocks are 4-0 in league play and Westland is 3-1.
Also off to a surprising start is St. Charles, which is following the defensive-minded philosophies of coach Jacob Daniel.
After losing their opener to Westerville Central 44-42 on Nov. 30, the Cardinals earned four consecutive victories. Senior guard Bryce Spees averaged a team-best 15 points through five games, followed by junior forwards Sean Hennessey (8.8) and Matt Hennessey (7.5).
St. Charles, whose returnees from last season's 13-7 team had limited varsity experience, was allowing just 41 points per game through five contests. The Cardinals are 2-0 in the CCL, having defeated DeSales 49-33 on Dec. 7 and Ready 58-53 on Dec. 14, but will face a big hurdle in Watterson on Friday, Jan. 4. The Eagles were unbeaten through four games and are 1-0 in the league.
Watterson has returned an abundance of experience from a year ago when it won the CCL title. The Eagles also have a defensive-oriented team, which means points will be at a premium when the teams meet at St. Charles.
On the girls side, Westerville North won seven of its first eight with a lineup featuring several underclassmen. Its loss was a 52-47 loss to Pickerington Central on Dec. 11.
Through eight games, the Warriors were averaging 59.7 points and giving up an average of 35.6. Sophomore guard/forward Symone Simmons was leading a balanced attack by averaging 16.6 points, followed by junior forward Kelsey Walker (8.4), senior guard/forward Gabrielle Pace (7.9), sophomore forward/guard Devin Jackson (7.6) and senior point guard Breyonia Hearn (6.9).
On Friday, Jan. 4, the Warriors play at Hilliard Bradley, which is 4-1 in OCC-Cardinal play, a game behind North. The Jaguars' OCC-Cardinal loss was a 33-23 setback to Westerville South on Dec. 14.
North had a letdown against Pickerington Central, but the Warriors know they must stick with their up-tempo style to be successful.
That will be a key for all three of these surprise teams -- staying true to themselves and doing what they do best. Whether it's the fast pace preferred by the Westland boys and Westerville North girls or the stingy defense and deliberate, half-court sets of St. Charles, finding and embracing that identity -- that comfort zone, if you will -- can be the difference between success and failure.